Cumberland Times-News

February 22, 2013

Lawmakers reject effort to reverse septic system rules

Limits, passed last year, not popular among many rural residents, farmers, political leaders

Matthew Bieniek
Cumberland Times-News

— CUMBERLAND — A bill that would have reversed tight limits placed on the use of septic systems in larger developments statewide has effectively been killed in House and Senate committees in the Maryland General Assembly.

The decision disappointed Allegany County Commission President Michael McKay, who also heads the Maryland Rural Counties Coalition.

“We had supported the repeal. ... The shame of it is that it’s such an important issue when it comes to land rights. Because the bills could not get out of committee there was no open debate on the floor,” McKay said.

The septic rules, passed in 2012, are not popular among many rural residents, farmers and political leaders. Septic systems are widely used in rural areas like Allegany County and the limits affect all types of development, but most of all large developments like the proposed Terrapin Run and the former Cumberland Chase.

Current law limits development by tightly regulating the size of housing developments that can be placed on septic systems. Almost all larger developments must be placed on public sewer systems, and only smaller and modest-sized developments can be placed on septic.

Terrapin Run has become a sore point between Allegany County officials and the Maryland Department of Planning, which says the county’s mapping for the area doesn’t comply with the new law. That was the only issue, however, where the department had a problem with Allegany County’s plans.

McKay did praise state Planning Secretary Richard Hall for being flexible in his dealings with some counties. For instance, Hall worked out issues with Frederick County regarding their planning maps, and despite an “agreement to disagree,” McKay said the disagreements are not personal.

It looks like the new rules are here to stay, though, since bills to reverse the septic laws both received unfavorable recommendations. That means the bills won’t move forward for consideration by the full legislature.

House Bill 106 and Senate Bill 391 would have repealed the Sustainable Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act of 2012. The House bill failed in committee by a 19-5 vote, while the Senate Bill failed 7-4. Local Delegates Wendell Beitzel and LeRoy Myers Jr. were among the co-sponsors of this legislation.

The rural coalition believes limits on the ability to put new developments on septic systems may impair economic growth in rural counties and depress rural land values. McKay said other bills in the Senate and House might help reimburse landowners whose properties lose value as a result of the septic laws through the use of a tax credit.

Environmental advocates have said they support the existing law.

“Legislation passed last session requires local jurisdictions to protect their rural lands from large-scale development on highly polluting septic systems. By the end of 2012, each county needs to show that rural lands are kept rural and development is instead directed to designated growth areas. It is these maps that we have been following closely. Does the county protect rural lands or pave them over,” said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of 1000 Friends of Maryland.

Septic use under the current law is dependent on where a planned development fits into a county tier map.

Tier I areas are local growth areas and should be on water and sewer except for limited exceptions, according to the final report of the Task Force on Sustainable Growth and Wastewater Disposal. The report was issued in December. These areas also are priority funding areas. Tier II areas are outside priority funding areas “...that is clearly defined in the county or municipal comprehensive plan.”

Tier III areas are “areas not planned for public sewer nor planned for preservation, with a limited amount of development potential. These areas should not be considered for state land preservation funding in most cases,” the reports said. Septic should be restricted in these areas and most restricted in Tier IV areas planned for rural preservation.

Contact Matthew Bieniek at mbieniek@times-news.com.